The following caveat was written by Roddy Flagg, owner and administrator of Chinese-Forums.com. It is being reprinted here with permission and as a “public service” reminder to appeal to common sense when traveling in Beijing, Shanghai, or anywhere else.

Roddy writes:

A friend of mine just got caught out by this while visiting Beijing, and I figured I’d write this up in the hope that it might save some others some hassle . . .

I’m sure these and variations are in operation in other cities in China and worldwide, and a general warning to be on your guard when you’re in tourist areas is always warranted, but here’s some details.

The Beijing Teahouse Scam
You are happily wandering around somewhere like Wangfujing or Tiananmen and a friendly English student starts chatting to you. He or she speaks very good English, is friendly and shows you around, maybe helps you buy a few gifts, and subsequently suggests you go for a cup of tea at a nice teahouse he / she knows. The teahouse will be very nice, you will have some very nice tea, but you will feel slightly disturbed by the fact that they served tea without letting you see a menu, or that the menu has no prices on. You will assume this is how you do things in China.

When the bill comes it will be ridiculous. My mate got presented with one that was approaching a four-figure RMB sum, for a pot of tea. Even if there is a tea house in Beijing legitimately serving tea at that price, it sure as hell doesn’t pour without asking what you want first.

What happens now varies – some scream and shout, some yell for the police, some pay up meekly, even if it requires the use of foreign currency or a credit card because they haven’t got enough RMB on them.

Variations:
1) Art galleries. ‘Art students’ strike up a conversation and invite you to their gallery. You’ll see at best second rate art at top-rate prices, and will be lucky to avoid a high-pressure sales pitch. Spend your time at a real gallery. Real galleries, for reference, do not send English students out onto the streets pretending to be art students.
2) Bars. Seems to be more common in Shanghai, and uses pretty girls in too much make-up rather than innocent looking ‘English students’ in tracksuits. This is clearly because Shanghai attracts a lower-class of tourist, but that’s beside the point.

In any case, you’ll be in danger of paying a lot more for something than you should do, and at the very least you’re going to waste your time.

How to avoid it: Sad to say, if you are in an area where there are a lot of tourists in China, then 99% of people who approach you want something, whether they are postcard sellers, tour touts, Mao watch merchants, or scam artists as described above. Do not go anywhere which will involve spending money – be it a teahouse, a gift shop, an art gallery or a restaurant – with these people. If you are convinced that someone who approached you while you were standing on a street corner with your upside-down map and a copy of the Lonely Planet is genuine, fine – but go to a place of your choosing, and laugh in the face of anyone who gives you something you didn’t order, or presents you a price-free menu.

You can read the follow-up discussion and more information about these types of traveler scams in China at Chinese-Forums.com. Our thanks to Roddy for the warning and permission to share it via The Chinese Outpost.